Saturday 29 January 2022

Reframed: Marilyn Monroe

'Marilyn Monroe is a mirror for people's ideas about sexuality and women's power', states the new four part CNN documentary series 'Reframed: Marilyn Monroe'. 

After watching, I felt this has never been more true. In an age where women's agency and freedoms are talked about and hashtagged in the news and social media there was a strong and evident agenda to reflect Marilyn as a trail blazer and feminist in this retelling.

The programme succeeded in ditching the usual tragic trappings most documentaries focus on when speaking about Marilyn the icon. Gone were the familiar 'beautiful young and dead' undertones to be replaced by representations of a hard working determined artist and star.

It was thrilling to see Marilyn make decisions and achieve against the odds. Wonderful to hear how she became a pioneer in a male led film industry, leaving Hollywood to set up her own production company, learn her craft and take chances.

To further this feeling of empowerment, the programme consisted of only women talking about her career, giving insights, or in Dame Joan Collins case, recollections, of the star. By taking men out of the picture this became a safe space where agency was given back to a woman whose image was established for the consumption of men.

Yet, even in this, Marilyn was given influence, as Bonnie Greer stated;

'We as women are constantly constructed, we construct ourselves, we collude in it, and you have to as a woman negotiate this, even if it's unconscious, every second of your life. Marilyn knew the machinery of womanhood very early'

It seems strange that a documentary so dedicated to lifting Marilyn Monroe up should then make some glaring mistakes that, if taken for fact, give a false impression of her. For instance, Marilyn's marriage to Joe DiMaggio was touted as a publicity stunt which is difficult to believe as they were both incredibly famous successful people at that point in their lives. Both parties met and fell in love years before their marriage and it's hard to see Marilyn being that callous or shallow where love and security were concerned.

Another bone of contention came when a rumoured love affair between a young Marilyn and her photographer Andre De Dienes was stated as truth. Over the years many men who knew her on a professional or even passing manner have claimed to have slept with her, and this for me is just another of those bragging stories that without evidence can only be met with skepticism.

But, mostly this was a new Marilyn for a new generation. 'Reframed' chose to show her story through the lens of a modern woman helping her to rise above the sexism and stereotypes of her time. While this did present new angles on events in her life giving much earned praise to her achievements and ambitions, the documentary was so fixated on getting the idea of a strong female across that it chose to leave out key points of her story that couldn't be rewritten as a personal triumph or breakthrough.

Crucial moments involving both husband's, Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, were downplayed or left out altogether. When events led to Marilyn's traumatic stay at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic (where she had been locked in a padded cell by order of her psychiatrist), the documentary only stated that she got out, failing to mention that if she hadn't got a message to DiMaggio,  by then her ex,  he wouldn't have fought for her release as he had.

Likewise, the emotional difficulties that came from her marriage to Miller were only skimmed across never giving the deeper extent of her heartbreak and dismay that led to professional loss and ultimately their divorce.

Though flawed in places, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, made a genuine effort to shake off many of the preconceptions and stereotypes associated with the star and reminded us that living in the midst of all the attention, myth (some self created) and stardom was a real person with real ambitions and struggles just like any other woman. 

Her struggles took place in an era when women's options were small, and expectations were high, yet somehow she managed to elevate beyond anything we could ever imagine and has become more than a person. Even today, 60 years beyond, Marilyn is an ever evolving idea of womanhood and a true reflection of our desires, efforts and successes as we progress through the ages.